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Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, built this magnificent baroque palace in 1719. He wanted the Zwinger to be his Versailles and a place where he could show off his incredible art collections. The architect, M. D. Pöppelmann (1662–1736), designed a series of galleries and domed pavilions to enclose a large rectangular courtyard with formal gardens, fountains, and promenades. The semicircular Wallpavillon at the west end and the adjacent Nymphenbad, with its graceful fountains and mythological figures, are notable buildings that rely on the exuberant sculptures of the Bavarian artist Balthasar Permoser (1651–1732). On the northeast side is the Semper Gallery, a Renaissance-style two-story pavilion linked by one-story galleries; Gottfried Semper added the pavilion in 1846. Today, this entire complex of buildings contains a stunning collection of museums. They all charge separate admissions (another good reason to buy a Dresden City-Card, described above) and they are all open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm; for more information go to www.skd-dresden.de.

The most important museum in the Zwinger is the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Gallery)  in the Semper Gallery (entrance at Theaterplatz 1). This gallery, one of the best in the world, has as its showpiece Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna.” The collection also includes Flemish, Dutch, and German paintings by Van Dyck, Vermeer, Dürer, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Galleries 2 through 4 display a series of detailed Dresden townscapes painted by Canaletto in the mid–18th century. Canaletto’s views of Dresden are so true to life that they were used as reference works during the post-WWII reconstruction of the city. Allow at least 2 hours for unhurried browsing. Admission is 10€ adults, 7.50€ seniors and students.

The Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection), with its entrance in the Glockenspiel Pavillon (Carillon Pavillion), displays Japanese, Chinese, and Meissen porcelain from the 18th and 19th centuries. The “giant animal room” on the second floor has a collection of 18th-century Meissen animals. Depending on your interest, you can see everything 30 minutes or less.

On the west side of the Zwinger, to the left of the Wallpavillon, is the intriguing Mathematische-Physikalischer Salon (Salon of Mathematics and Physics), with all manner of clocks and scientific instruments of the 16th to 19th centuries. Admission is 6.50€ adults, 4.50€ seniors and students. It's open Tues–Sun 10am–6pm